James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference
San Diego, California
October 16, 2016

The True Heart of American Law Enforcement

Remarks as delivered.

One of the best things about my job is the opportunity to get to know the leadership of American law enforcement. Over the last three years, I have had the good fortune to know and talk with many of you. And although I haven’t walked in your shoes, I thought it might be useful to share a perspective from where I am, as part of an organization that is in all of your communities, depends upon you, and constantly learns from you.

I have learned from you that this is a uniquely difficult time in American law enforcement. I realize that “unique” is an overused word, but I think it applies here. And enough of you have told me that this is the hardest time in your career that I suspect you agree.

Your people are caught in difficult and dangerous riptides. Your patrol officers, your deputies, your detectives, your agents face challenges that those who came before them could hardly imagine.

There is water rushing in and water rushing out, and your people are standing where these unpredictable currents meet. They are being pulled in different directions. They are being pulled by the communities they serve, by their colleagues, by expectations, by their leaders, by the media.

There is a very real chance of drowning in the currents.

There is a need for leadership in the middle of those riptides. There is a need for people to stand tall, plant their feet, speak the truth, and calm the waters.

So what kind of leaders are we looking for standing like that among the riptides?

First of all, they are leaders who know their people. They know they became cops and sheriffs to do good. To help others. To serve their communities and to serve all the people who live there—whatever race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation they may be. Your folks signed up to serve all of the people, all of the time.

Second, the leaders we need know what good policing looks like. They know it because they have lived it. Up-close, respectful, disciplined, firm, fair, lawful, and transparent law enforcement is what has always worked best, even in neighborhoods with the most significant crime problems. The leaders we need understand that a combination of kindness and toughness, of humility and confidence, of decency and determination, delivers the best results.

Third, the leaders we need know their neighborhoods with the greatest need for police and they know the people who live there. In particular, they know the history and journey of black America. They know the hopes, the dreams, the disappointments and the pain. They know the history of law enforcement’s interaction with black America, because the black people of America know it and remember it for reasons that make good sense. They know that African-Americans, like all Americans, want good policing because they know it is the path to safety and prosperity.

Fourth, the leaders we need understand that our challenges are multiplied by a narrative that is forming about American policing. It is a narrative that has formed, in the absence of good information and in the absence of actual data, and it is this: Biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates. That is the narrative. It is a narrative driven by video images of real misconduct, possible misconduct, and perceived misconduct. It is a narrative given force by the power of empathy. It is also a narrative pushed forward by the surprise and shock of civilians at seeing how fast and complicated police activity can be.

The leaders we need know that many people of good will in this country—decent, caring people—believe with all their hearts that American law enforcement is using deadly force against black people at epidemic levels. The leaders we need know Americans believe that because those are the videos they see, over and over and over again. To these Americans, people of good will and good hearts, each video becomes further proof of nationwide police brutality. People of good will are protesting—including here in San Diego—because they believe there is an epidemic of police violence against black people.

Of course, however good their hearts, however good their intentions, Americans actually have no idea whether the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down, or sideways over the last 10 years. They have no idea whether black people or brown people are more likely to be shot during encounters than white people are. There is actually some recent research from a Harvard economist who focused on 10 major departments, analyzing over 1,000 shootings showing lethal force is more likely to be used against white people, while non-lethal force is more likely to be used against black people. But we really don’t know well enough on a national basis.

There were 10.7 million arrests in this country last year, and many times that number of encounters between officers and civilians. Out of those tens of millions of encounters, how many people were shot? What did they look like? What were the circumstances? Is deadly force use trending up or down? Where is it worst and where is it best? Nobody knows.

They have no idea of these things because we have no idea of these things. We simply don’t know. As a country, we simply haven’t bothered to collect the data, to gather the information. And in the absence of information, we have anecdotes, we have videos, we have good people believing something terrible is going on. In a nation of almost a million law enforcement officers and tens of millions of police encounters each year, a small group of videos serve as proof of an epidemic.

And that sense by good people that the police are doing terrible things has real costs.

The leaders we need know that this narrative makes it hard to gain our footing. It makes it hard for us to help people. Because in the absence of information, the narrative dominates and it changes everything. The leaders we need know we simply must change that and show ourselves and America what is true and accurate. Whatever that may be. We must have a national database about our use of deadly force. With accurate information, we can all get better.

The leaders we need also know that the narrative divides us, that it can keep good officers in their cars and good people in their homes, separated by a chasm of fear and distrust.

The leaders we need know that our officers are human beings, with families, obligations, hopes, and dreams. They know our officers do not want to get famous or get dead. Our officers see the videos. They desperately do not want to be in one. They think about it all the time.

They also saw Dallas and Baton Rouge and Palm Springs and they follow every end-of-watch notification. They think about that all the time. They desperately don’t want to leave their family behind, and their families desperately don’t want to be left behind.

The leaders we need worry that self-initiated police activity is on the decline in our most violent cities. Of course officers respond to calls; of course they make arrests, comfort victims, and interview witnesses. They still “do their jobs.” They still risk their lives. Because they are good people. But they are also people and a good leader knows that.

The leaders we need ask questions: Do my officers get out of their car at midnight to ask a group of kids what their business is on a street corner? Do they stop the car with tinted windows that just ran a stop sign in a high-crime neighborhood? Do they get out to pat down the known offender who has been standing for an hour on a known drug corner? Or, as you have told me, do they first ask themselves, “Could this get me famous or dead?” And the answer changes policing and changes neighborhoods. The leaders we need see that.

But they also see that’s only one side of the divide. On the other side of the divide, the chasm of distrust, they know stand good people who saw something, or suspect something, or know something. When homicides are up but clearance rates are down, the leaders we need think about the divide, the chasm. If people don’t trust the police, they aren’t going to offer the tips, they aren’t going to whisper to the cop that they saw the up-close shooting, that they know who just left 20 shell casings on the sidewalk in broad daylight, that they know where the gun ended up. Instead, they are going to stay inside on their own side of the divide, the chasm. More murders, more unsolved.

And so into the chasm, into the gap of distrust, fall more dead young black men. Places like Chicago show us what the chasm looks like and how much pain it causes. The leaders we need ache over this, agonize over this, and refuse to stop speaking about it.

And so they keep talking, until they are hoarse. They talk to their citizens. They talk to the media. They talk to their local elected leaders. And, most of all, they talk to their officers. They love them and support them and hold them accountable. They fight for the equipment and training they need. They make clear what is expected of them, and make clear that they will have their back if they police well, even if it ends badly, even if it ends in tragedy, as it sometimes does.

And to their communities, they make clear that good policing is up-close and firm-but-respectful; that policing is really, really hard and sometimes bad things happen, but those things will be met with transparency and sound judgment; that community leaders should support their officers because they are, after all, their officers, saving lives and creating spaces where good things can grow.

And in all that talking, the leaders we need show both sides they want and need the same policing. That is how the chasm will begin to close. That is how communities will find both healing and peace.

Those are the kind of leaders we need. The good news? Those are the kind of leaders so many of our communities have. I have come to know many of you personally as I have met with you and your troops, so I know we have these kinds of leaders, all across the country. Leaders who are planting your feet in the riptide, caring for your officers and for your community, and for helping calm the waters. Thank you for being those leaders. We need you now more than ever.

But as you work to close the chasm, we face another threat from the narrative that policing is biased and violent and unfair. It threatens the future of policing, so we have to talk about it as well.

Who would chose to do this work? Who would choose to do something decried as inherently racist? Who would choose to risk getting famous or dead? Why on earth would a talented young person choose that life when they could choose a “respectable” profession?

These questions should haunt us as law enforcement leaders, because this country will be deeply sorry if that young talent—kids who want to help others—chooses some other way to serve. We need great teachers, and nurses, and social workers. But we also need great people of character and talent out there where the stakes are highest—where single moms are trying to find a life for their families, where a good kid needs a second chance, where old people want to sit on the porch, where there really are predators trying to kill people. We need talent there.

If quality young people stop signing up, we may not notice it for a few years, but the day will come when we will be deeply sorry that we failed to explain to great young people why they should choose law enforcement, that we failed to show them the true heart of law enforcement.

There are bad cops. There are departments with troubled cultures. Unfortunately, people are flawed. In any large group, there will be bad ones. All professions want to find and root out the bad ones. There are bad bankers, bad lawyers, and bad software engineers. There are companies and firms with troubled cultures. But for law enforcement, the spotlight is brighter and the standards are higher. That is the way it should be, given the power and authority we are entrusted with. We accept those standards and must work hard to measure ourselves against them.

And of course the pressure on cops is unique. There is no doubt that some cops come to see young men of color on their beat as perps because they see so many who have gone wrong. That’s dumb and unjust and we have to constantly resist it, to train it out and root it out.

Cops are also only called to scenes of hurt and pain; that can be warping and we have to be conscious of that danger. We have to show the cops who only work the overnight that there are good people in that neighborhood going to school and work, pushing strollers, and sitting on park benches in the daylight, including good young men trying to make a life.

But I really can’t give you an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thing here, because the truth is this: Police officers are overwhelmingly good people. They are overwhelmingly people who took exhausting, dangerous jobs because they want to help people. They chose lives of service over self, lives of moral content, because that’s who they are. They want to stop bad guys from occupying neighborhoods; they want to help old people off the floor and back into bed; they want to keep a young girl from a life on the street.

Someone once said that you make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give. These cops don’t make a great living. But they make a great life, for themselves, and for those they protect.

As we work to close the chasm, we need to show the young people of America what it is like to choose service over self. We need to show them what American law enforcement is really like. Because if they know what we know, they will want to be part of it. And we also need to show the people of America, especially people of color and especially the black community, what we are really like. Because if they see what we see, the chasm will start to close.

I saw the true heart of American law enforcement in a church in Orlando in June. I went down to have a private meeting with the first responders to the attack at the Pulse nightclub. I wanted to thank them, in person, and privately.

As I stood looking out at the sea of faces, a hand went up. A man in uniform stood up. He told me his name and then he said, “I’m Jewish.” That confused me, but he went on. “I was one of the first there that night, and as I ran toward the sound of gunfire, at my side was a Muslim officer. We were Jew and Muslim and Christian. We were white and black and Latino and Asian. We ran to help people we didn’t know and we didn’t care what they looked like. We ran toward the danger because that’s who we are, that’s what we do. I thought you should know that. I think people should know that.” And then he sat down.

That is the true heart of law enforcement.

We are flawed. We must—and we will—work to get better. But we are good people from all walks of life who have chosen service over self. I know that. I think all people should know that.

When I speak to young people I try to give them an odd perspective. Because life is filled with striving and stresses, with the need for money and the craving for recognition, all of which may obscure what really matters, I tell them to do something weird. I suggest that they close their eyes and imagine themselves old and gray and about to die. I ask them to sit at the end of their lives and look back on their life and ask one question: “Who do I want to have been?” Because if you ask it that way, things like money and houses and cars and even human honor are stripped away. And what really matters will come into view.

I frame it that way for them because I hope some of them will answer the question as those in law enforcement have. You want to have been people who used what you had to help people who needed you—the bullied, the picked-on, the vulnerable, the weak, the frightened. That’s who you will have been. And we must ensure that people of talent continue to understand that only in such a life is there real value, real wealth.

We need to lead well. We need to collect accurate and complete information to inform the policing debates in this country. We need to show people the true heart of law enforcement. And, we need to close the chasm. If we do those things, and we do them well, we will save lives. And we will ensure that other great men and women follow into this frustrating, exhausting, dangerous, and thoroughly wonderful career.

Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for the lives you have chosen to live. Thank you for the lives you shape and the lives you save. Thank you for choosing to do good for a living.